It’s Thursday and I am four hours from home at my daughter, Shauna’s, house. I sit at my computer with my four-month-old grandson, Henry, on my lap.
While he grabs at the keypad I search the web for the most recent updates on the situation in Darfur. I find only bad news: escalated violence has led to another major withdrawal of international aid workers and supplies, leaving hundreds of thousands of refugees without food, water, blankets.
Online I sign a letter to our president, asking for increased pressure on the Sudanese government and greater support for peacekeepers trying to quell the violence and protect civilians. I also send a check to an aid organization still trying to get supplies to the desperate refugees.
Then I play with Henry. I don’t have words to describe the pleasure of being a grandmother. I contort my face, stick out my tongue, gurgle and chirp and giggle and grunt, all in the name of entertaining Henry.
Today I prop him up in a corner of the sofa and surround him with all his soft, squishy animal toys. He’s tired and hungry, needing his mom to come home soon. To distract him from his hunger, I make his animals talk and sing and dance and bounce up and down in front of him.
He looks adorable surrounded by his critter toys, so I grab my camera. Click, click. Henry, look at Grandma. Click, click. The photo becomes the screen saver on my computer, so even now as I write, Henry’s head peeks above my Word document. I smile. It’s a disease called grandma madness.
Grandmothers in Africa face a different disease. A disease that drags their sons and daughters down into an ugly, painful death. The “wasting away disease” they used to call it. Now they call it AIDS. These grandmothers don’t have time to entertain their hungry grandchildren with silly faces and chirps and giggles while they wait for the mothers to come home. The mothers aren’t coming home.
Thirteen million kids in sub-Saharan Africa have been orphaned by AIDS; approximately half live in grandmother-headed households. The grannies, as they’re called, may take in two kids, they may take in twenty. The children may actually belong to their sons or daughters, or they may just be kids in need. Either way, the noble grannies don’t have time to play with the children they’re raising. They’re too busy collecting firewood to trade for food or crushing stones in a quarry in order to pay for school uniforms.
Having already buried their sons and daughters, these grannies pray they won’t have to bury another generation, but often they do. They meet in support groups to share stories, to make beaded jewelry and knitted crafts to sell in the market, to learn how to protect themselves from HIV as they care for the sick, and to grieve.
My fairytale life as a grandmother is haunted by memories of the grannies I’ve met in Africa. They watch me silently as I put a clean new diaper on Henry’s chubby bottom. They smile shyly when my silly antics elicit a babyish laugh. They bury calloused fingers in the tangle of fuzzy sleepers fresh from the dryer. They don’t accuse; they simply make sure I don’t forget them.
I look at Henry and I melt into the pure pleasure of him. I weep for joy. Then the grannies start to whisper, gently reminding me of what I myself have thought a thousand times since Henry was born: that all babies should experience life as he does. All babies should be well fed and freshly bathed, then dressed in clean, soft, cuddly clothes. All babies should be doted on, wrapped tightly in circles of delighted moms and dads and aunts and uncles. All babies should be surrounded by sights and sounds that grab their attention and start their little minds growing. But they’re not. Millions of babies do not have even one of those advantages. What they have is swollen bellies and diarrhea, malaria and HIV. They’re too sick to laugh or cry. Too lethargic to be entertained. I look at the grannies huddled together and weep for the babies reflected in their eyes.
Becoming my sisters’ keeper
But now it’s Friday, and I move on from Shauna’s house. I am eager to attend the regional swim meet where my 17-year-old nephew, Levi, will compete. Over the course of two days I sit poolside on bleachers for eight hours, wilting in the moist heat of a high school natatorium.
During the long heats of the 500 Individual Medley, which Levi does not swim, I ask my niece, Kendall, about her college classes. Women’s Studies is her favorite class; discussing it sends my mind on tangents of social concern. The sexual trafficking of millions of women and girls each year. The sexual violence against women that drives the AIDS pandemic in the developing world. The 27 million slaves in the world today, 80% of whom are women.
We talk of such things until the Individual Medley ends, then focus again on the pool. As Levi leaves the block for the 50 Freestyle, I become light-headed with nervousness, aching for him to get the state time he has worked so hard for. He does. So we cheer and celebrate and hug. I am so glad to be here. So glad to see this young woman and young man I love growing in strength and character and maturity.
But when the cheering ends and I slip into my car for the long drive home, my mind picks up where my conversation with Kendall left off. I ponder another tragedy disproportionately impacting women: war. A century ago, 90 percent of war casualties were male soldiers. Today, an estimated 90 percent of casualties are civilians, and 75 percent of these are estimated to be women and children.
In the early 1990s I traveled with a humanitarian organization to Croatia and Bosnia as those countries were being ripped apart by war with Serbia. In Bosnia we visited refugee centers filled with middle-class women just like me who had lost everything: jobs, husbands, homes, their planned-for future. Many had also been victims of the increasingly popular tactic of war called rape, which shatters body and soul. We visited schools where social workers tried to help grade school kids who were suffering so severely from posttraumatic stress that they sat all day silently chewing their nails to the quicks. It was the first time I had seen war up close and I was stunned by what human beings do to one another.
Leaving Bosnia, I traveled up to Croatia, to a little border town where I could climb to the top of a hill and look out over Bosnia. I sat there for hours and wept and prayed for the women and children I’d seen. While I prayed an unbidden question repeated itself: Am I my sister’s keeper? And the answer was yes, yes, yes, you are your sister’s keeper.
And who is my sister? God, who is my sister?
They are all your sisters. Croatian Catholics. Bosnian Muslims. Serbian Orthodox. They — and every other woman you will ever meet — are all your sisters. They are all part of the human family I have created.
From haunted to hopeful
That’s what happens when you open your mind and your heart to God and to the world. You end up with a huge family. You can’t possibly meet the needs of every family member, but you can never again dismiss their needs thoughtlessly. They’re family. And they haunt you. An unexpected image dances across your vision at an inopportune time. A light-hearted moment is darkened by a disturbing subtext. A chill pierces your heart on a sunny day.
Yes, you’ll end up haunted. Even more, you’ll end up in despair. There’s no way around it. I can’t remember who wrote that “God’s heart is an open wound of love,” but I believe it. And I believe our hearts become open wounds, too, when we dare to love this damaged world God loves.
There are two antidotes to despair. One is denial. Pretending you didn’t see that picture. Didn’t hear those screams. Didn’t read that story. Or maybe you acknowledge the horror of what you saw or heard or read, but you pretend it’s not your responsibility. There’s nothing you can do. What difference can one person make? And where would you start anyway?
Denial works. But it shrinks your heart. It makes you a little less human. It puts distance between you and God.
The other antidote to despair is action — doing something, anything, to address the need. Seems like every few years I have an experience that pushes me so far into despair that I toy with denial. I start listening to the cynic inside me who asks why I even bother to hope in the face of such a broken world. But I have learned that if I consciously choose action I will find hope.
For years I had been involved in my church’s ministry partnerships in the inner city of Chicago and in under-resourced communities in Latin America. But through television specials, news articles, and seemingly random conversations, my mind and heart were gripped by the tragic stories coming from sub-Saharan Africa.
I heard the staggering statistics related to AIDS and global poverty, but since I’m not a numbers person I knew I would have to put flesh and bone on the statistics in order to understand. My kids were in their mid-twenties and both were in-between jobs. So the three of us traveled with a humanitarian organization to Kenya, Uganda, and Zambia.
We walked through filthy hospitals jammed with men and women on torn, stinking mattresses dying alone of AIDS.
We met pastors who bury AIDS victims three at a time; if they did individual funerals they would spend every day with the dead and be unable to minister to the living.
We met a beautiful young mother, widowed by AIDS, who had sold herself into prostitution because in an area with 98% unemployment, there was no other way for her to feed her children.
Day after day I sunk more deeply into despair. But then came the opportunity to visit children sponsored by the organization we were traveling with. Surely there, I thought, we would find hope.
But because of a mix-up in communication, our African host took us to visit children who needed sponsorship but had not yet received it. They were all orphans from one extended family who were living with their grandfather, a frail, sickly man who could not support them.
It was 2 o’clock in the afternoon. They had not yet eaten that day and there was no meal awaiting them. Because we had not planned to be there, we had no food to offer them.
It was one of the most disturbing experiences of my life. In that moment, I hated who I was: a privileged American seeing the need and doing nothing. Of course that was not my intention. But my good intentions meant nothing. To those children I was just one more person turning away from their pain.
I decided that day that even if I spent the rest of my life addressing this issue and I helped only one person, at least one life would be different. And I would know that my heart was alive, that I was connected with what’s real in this world, and that I was moving closer to the heart of God.
Answering the call
When I got home I began studying AIDS and global poverty, praying earnestly for guidance, and talking about what I’d seen to anyone who would listen. Proverbs 31:8–9 says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” In Africa I had seen the destitute, the poor, the needy. The unequivocal call of scripture was for me to speak up on their behalf.
As I spoke one-on-one and in groups at my church, people listened and responded. Many offered money and leadership expertise. We eventually established a ministry in Africa that now serves thousands of widows, orphans, and people infected with HIV/AIDS. I don’t direct this ministry. I have neither the gifts nor the capacity to do that. God called and empowered me to do one simple thing — speak up. Then he called and empowered other people to do what they were uniquely equipped to do.
My unapologetic reason for writing this article is to call you to action. Elsewhere I have written about what I call “dangerous women,” women willing to engage with the needs of the world, women willing to be healers of wounds and righters of wrongs. Oh how our world needs a loving, fighting tribe of dangerous women — and men!
I’m not suggesting that we live in a state of despair. On the contrary, I long for you — and me — to celebrate every day the joys of new babies and stuffed animals and swim meet victories and family love. But I also long for us to let our celebrations be a bit haunted by the desperate needs of our sisters and brothers around the world.
How different the world could be if all blessed grandmothers took up the cause of Africa’s grannies, if those who seek the worthy goal of egalitarian marriage fought with equal fervor the horror of sex trafficking, if we who live in comfort championed the cause of displaced refugees. And what a glorious coup if our compassionate actions and our fight for justice ultimately gave our brothers and sisters in need a reason to celebrate!